In a time of climate change, inequality, polarization, and pandemic, what does it mean to be “useful?” This question from SFI President David Krakauer kicked off SFI’s live online course Complexity Interactive, which ran January 10 – 28, 2022. Is it better for complex systems scientists to keep their advice simple and be understood, or to advocate for complexity and nuance yet risk that no one will listen?

This year’s Complexity Interactive focused broadly on sustainability. Participants represented six continents and 28 countries, with interests as different as space weather, regenerative agriculture, and comparative theology. The curriculum gave participants an overview of current research at SFI, engaged them in transdisciplinary thinking with colleagues, and inspired ideas and approaches for future research using the tools of complexity science.

A series of seminars and discussions throughout the three-week program uncovered how complexity theory can reveal patterns and explanations across a variety of systems, and explored how complex-systems approaches could inform solutions to global challenges. 

SFI Professor Geoffrey West used his work on scaling theory to explain why people die but cities don’t, and why the unbounded growth of cities may not be good news. “Everything comes at a price. This does, too,” said West. “The theory tells you what’s going to happen if you do insist on continuing. It tells you: you collapse.” Other talks focused on how innovation, including parallels between technological invention and biological evolution, might prevent collapse. 

SFI External Professors Brian Enquist (University of Arizona) and Mary O’Connor (University of British Columbia) explained how humans and climate change affect ecosystems. Across the world, species diversity — biodiversity — is shrinking as a result of human activity and energy consumption, and so are the populations of many large organisms. These declines cumulatively mean a loss in Earth’s overall biomass. But there was hope for the future of the Earth. 

“I think bad things lie ahead for humans and society for sure,” said O’Connor. “But the planet is not going to implode, or disappear. Life on the planet will go on and most of the things we’re accustomed to — biologically, ecologically — will carry on. I personally find that optimistic.”

Along with sustainability, the course emphasized fundamental principles of complex systems, such as measures of sameness and the limits of computability, along with forays into algorithmic fairness, cascading failures in the power grid, and the power of Big Tech and its threat to democracy.

Participants brought their openness and creativity to the course, and a dynamic group of colleagues emerged. “Complexity Interactive was the missing piece of my journey as it built a vibrant community of complex systems researchers with whom I expect to keep learning, sharing, and collaborating,” said participant Tamiris Santos, a postdoctoral fellow from Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil).

Collaboration, many students concluded, is at the heart of what it means to be useful. Complexity science is a powerful toolbox, but to apply it meaningfully to climate change mitigation and sustainability policies requires domain-specific expertise. Program Director, SFI External Professor Miguel Fuentes, explained, “The idea is not that the complexity scientist will do the policy ‘thing.’ Rather, they will be there on the team.” Through such teamwork — with fellow researchers, policy-makers, governments, educators, journalists, and the public — complexity scientists are not only useful, but essential.